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Open Ends: Civil Society and Internet Governance - Part III

This is the final part of a three-part series interview by Geert Lovink with Jeanette Hofmann, policy expert from Germany, where she talks about her experiences as a member of the ICANN’s Nominating Committee and her current involvement as a civil society member of the German delegation for the World Summit of the Information Society (WSIS). Click to read Part I and Part II of this interview.

GL: You have been visiting WSIS as a member of the German delegation. Could you share some of your personal impressions with us? Did you primarily look at WSIS as an ICT circus for governmental officials and development experts or was there something, no matter how futile, at stake there?

JH: For observers, UN world summits may indeed look like a circus with people traveling around the world for the sake of traveling and doing nothing but producing papers the gist of which remains obscure to outsiders. Yet, from a participant’s point of view, the world summit is not primarily a circus but an opportunity for negotiation. What makes UN world summits special is the diversity of people both in terms of cultural or geographic origin and their functions and competences. Representatives of governments, civil society and private sector organizations from all over the world meet for several weeks to discuss the proper meaning, their visions and the challenges of a global information society. This is both a laborious and an exciting effort with lasting effects on most participants’ world views. At a minimum, you become aware of the extent as to how your political opinions reflect the common sense of your political culture.

More specifically, the WSIS process has been relevant for procedural as well as substantial reasons. The first aspect refers to the world summits’ rules of procedure. In the case of WSIS, the rules of procedure turned out to be a bone of contention because governments had different opinions on the status of NGOs and the private sector. For example, should non-governmental actors be granted an observer status and if so for what type of meetings? Should they have the right to speak to the plenary or at working group meetings? Should they be supported with travel grants as their governments are, etc. etc.

Each world summit has to decide anew on its rules of procedure. The interesting point is that these rules evolve over time or perhaps even from summit to summit. The formal status and the political weight of NGOs in particular are increasing. For the first time, NGOs got meeting rooms on the conference premises. Likewise, speaking slots for civil society and private sector at plenary meetings become institutionalized. Civil society in turn decided to set up a formal structure consisting of an international civil society bureau which represents a broad variety working groups, caucuses and families. The international civil society bureau forms an interface between NGOs and governments and facilitates communication between them. It seems rather unlikely that subsequent world summits would discontinue these structures and processes.

Worth mentioning in this respect is the fact that a growing number of governments accepts civil society people as official members of their delegation. Canada, Switzerland, Denmark, Finland, and Germany are among the pioneers of this new form of cooperation between government and civil society. Hence, WSIS clearly marks a step forward towards exploring new modes of interaction between governments, civil society and private sector.

WSIS has been an important process also with regard to our political understanding of information society. The fact that the ITU of all UN organizations was charged with organizing the summit led to a conceptual framework which focused primarily on information and communication technologies. The summit thus started out with a fairly technical understanding of information society. Now, the first paragraph of the December 2003 WSIS declaration affirms the commitment to “build a people-centred, inclusive and development-oriented Information Society”. Also, the declaration emphasizes the “universality, indivisibility, interdependence and interrelation of all human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the right to development, as enshrined in the Vienna Declaration.” Democracy, sustainable development, respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms are described as “interdependent and mutually reinforcing”. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is mentioned as “an essential foundation of the Information Society”.

It is safe to say that civil societies’ persistent interventions have had a significant part in the changes of the declaration’s underlying concept of information society. Thanks to civil society’s participation, the WSIS declaration has stripped of its technocratic approach and reflects now a more political notion of information society. Political in the sense of that information society is put into context. This implies a notion of communication as a basic human need and a fundamental social process. It also implies awareness of the unequal access to and benefits from information and communication technologies, and it implies a serious commitment to capacity building and social empowerment in order to overcome the various forms of digital divide.

The main insight I gained from participating in the WSIS process concerns the fact that information societies depend on the right to freedom of opinion and expression. Without adherence to human rights and basic democratic principles, information society is but a sham. This might sound like a trivial point. However, the declaration’s paragraph on human rights proved to be one of the most contested ones. The WSIS process shows that respect for and compliance with human rights can never and nowhere be taken for granted. The vision of a people centred information society thus implies necessarily a commitment to defend human rights.

GL: Cynics knew at forehand that WSIS would never have any outcome. The United Nations together with the ITU seemed such an odd coalition, doomed to meaningless. On the other hand, WSIS, together with Verisign do put up serious pressure on ICANN. There is a ‘Kofi Anan’ initiative to come up a new framework for ’ global Internet governance’. Will the libertarian US-led engineering class, which still dominates Internet decision making bodies, allow alternative proposals to be further developed? They seem happy with the status quo.

JH: Your question seems to assume that there is one group of stakeholders, which is able to effectively control the governance structure of the Internet. I don’t think this is the case. I do not even see that any of these groups has a clear, comprehensive vision of the Internet’s future. I see Internet Governance rather as an open-ended search process with different groups pursuing more or less contested short-term goals, some of which may contribute to the groundwork of a long-term regime for the net. Part of this search process is an ever changing composition of key actors. The active involvement of UN headquarters is just the latest development in this process. Again, I don’t think it has been anybody’s explicit goal to get the UN involved. The founding of the UN working group on Internet Governance is the compromise between conflicting government interests. While most OECD countries believe in self-governance with little or no government participation, many developing countries would prefer an intergovernmental regime for the Internet. The UN was chosen as a neutral and legitimate organization to host a working group being tasked with developing a definition of internet governance, identify public policy issues related to that definition and finally developing a general understanding of the respective roles and responsibilities of governments and all other actors involved.
Due to its narrow time frame, we can hardly expect the UN working group to come up with ground braking new ideas. Yet, it would be a mistake to underestimate the symbolic import of the UN working group. For the first time the meaning of Internet Governance is not just taken for granted but subject to political consideration. I think it is good to have a public debate on the question as to who should do what in the field of Internet Governance. An actual example is spam. Spam has become a threat to the most common and important Internet service, email. Should this problem be tackled on the national or on the global level? Will there be technical solutions available in the near future? Do we need new regulatory tools in order to ensure compliance with national laws? I think it is a step forward to discuss these questions in a systematic manner within an inclusive, transparent framework.

We need such debates because it is less and less clear how the freedom of all individual users worldwide is best served. I used to believe in a strict hands-off approach opposed to any government intervention on the grounds that governments would impose a national logic on the first transnational communication infrastructure and thereby transforming it. Furthermore, like many other people I suspected that government intervention would suffocate the Internet’s innovative pace. Today, I find it less obvious that self-regulation is able to maintain in the long run what we like most about the Internet, the freedom of communication.

The UN working goup is important also with respect to its composition and working methods. It has been stressed during the process of setting up of the working group that the overall acceptance and legitimacy of its outcome depends to a large extent on its composition. It can be expected that in addition to governments and supranational organizations civil society and the private sector will also be represented. Such modest experiments in creating legitimacy in global politics are very important as each of them forms a milestone for other people and organizations to refer to. Despite the sceptics’ view in democracy theory, there is in some organizations a growing willingness to work on more inclusive approaches to international policy making. It remains yet to be seen whether such tripartite models will have any substantial impact. Now, coming back to your question, I pursue a non-cynical approach to the WSIS process as you can see.

GL: Besides policy work you started teaching at the University of Essen. What do you teach your students, how do they respond and what have been your experiences so far?

JH: I’ve been teaching “politics and communication” for two semesters. I usually do a course on Internet Governance. There are not that many people in social sciences who look at the Internet as an evolving social space. In Germany and perhaps in Europe in general the Internet is predominantly seen as a mere tool that people have to master in order to use it effectively. I thus see my classes as an ongoing attempt to refute such reifications. In my view, the net is still a very dynamic place with its technical and social norms being subject to constant transformation and reinterpretation. So, one of the things I try to teach my students is that even the mere use of Internet services has repercussions on its further development. Think of Anthony Giddens concept of “structuration” where structures and agency mutually constitute themselves. I guess my main point is that I want my students to understand that their behaviour actively shapes (network) structures instead of passively using them.

A second course I taught this year revolved around globalization and democracy. The last third of the course discussed the draft treaty establishing a convention for Europe. The punch line of the whole exercise concerned the contested majority rule. As I’ve mentioned earlier in this interview, democracy can be regarded as a pretty dynamic enterprise. It is actually quite ironic: while most people associate democracy with majority ruling, the composition of majorities itself is everything but a clear-cut procedure. The negotiations surrounding voting rules and the weighting of votes in the European council exemplify quite well that constitutions do not consist of a fixed set of politically neutral procedures. Rather, they reflect the configuration of key actors, their political traditions and beliefs as well as the power balance between them.

At the same time, we looked at the EU convention as an attempt to create a working confederation as apposed to a federal state. It remains true though that the EU itself couldn’t become a member of the EU as it doesn’t meet its own criteria of democracy!

So, I guess I try to share with students what I find personally interesting about politics. What I do find interesting doesn’t depend so much on the subject matter but on the perspective. Politics get interesting when you look at them from an active citizen’s point of view, somebody who cares about and feels responsible for society. Now, most students feel comfortable with the idea that they are mere victims of a more or less corrupt political process and therefore really couldn’t care less about its details. So, how do they respond to my preaching approach? I think I succeeded when I convinced them to look at political challenges from a politician’s perspective who faces a million dilemmas but has nonetheless to make decisions and bear all the consequences. One of the students made it know in the last meeting that he had now subscribed to a newspaper and seriously intended to read it. This is something I won’t forget.

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